Is Syracuse Doomed to an Early NCAA Tournament Exit After Late-Season Slide?

Thad NovakCorrespondent IMarch 14, 2014

USA Today

Nobody who believes in the value of momentum has anything good to say about Syracuse’s NCAA tournament chances these days. The Orange lost their inaugural game in the ACC tournament, 66-63 against N.C. State, to drop to 2-5 since February 19.

The defeat also left Syracuse sorely lacking when it comes to the much-discussed “eye test” of whether a team looks ready to succeed in the Big Dance, as ESPN’s John Gasaway said of the six times Syracuse tried and failed to score on its final offensive possession.

If the Wolfpack—still none too secure in their at-large hopes—miss out on the field of 68, the Orange will have lost to three non-tournament teams in just over four weeks. However, it would be a mistake to read too much into Syracuse’s recent fortunes, given the team’s overall body of work.

In the first place, 27-5 is still an outstanding record, and if the Orange had compiled that mark in a slightly different order, they would still be in the conversation for a No. 1 seed. Negative momentum certainly doesn’t help Jim Boeheim’s team, but it’s far from a guarantee of failure.

Secondly, the glut of recent defeats was essentially no more than probability catching up to the Orange in general and Tyler Ennis in particular.

'Cuse’s first loss (at home vs. Boston College) had been preceded by three Houdini-grade escapes in the space of five games: a 91-89 win in OT against Duke, 58-56 over Pitt on an Ennis buzzer-beater and 56-55 win over this same Wolfpack squad with Ennis assisting on C.J. Fair’s game-winning layup.

GIF from ESPN broadcast

Ennis deserves credit for making plays under pressure, but nobody’s good enough to supply a last-second miracle all the time.

And that point brings us to the most important reason not to count Syracuse out: Beating Boeheim’s squad requires out-executing one of the most efficient possession-for-possession teams in the country.

On either end of the floor, disasters such as Fair’s 3-of-16 shooting performance against the Wolfpack have been rare. Even Coach Boeheim didn’t fault his star’s dreadful night, opining in the postgame press conference, “I thought C.J. got the shots he wanted. I think he’s the best offensive player in the league. I think he was clearly the best player in the league this year.”

The small number of total possessions played in a typical Orange game leads to low scores and frequent narrow margins, but the overall odds are still very much in favor of Fair and his mates.

Its confidence naturally rattled by another tough loss in spite of Jerami Grant’s return, Syracuse will be a bit more vulnerable to an early Big Dance upset than some other highly-seeded teams. To assume that the Orange are ready to roll over and die, though, would be giving too much weight to five losses and not enough to 27 wins.